I just love it when other people write what I’m thinking. I just wish it weren’t so disgustingly true.

In the latest (Oct. 2) issue of Rolling Stone, on sale now but not yet available online, writer Matt Taibbi calls out the American electorate in a major new piece called ‘The Lies of Sarah Palin.’ A snippet:

“Here’s the thing about Americans. You can send their kids off by the thousands to get their balls blown off in foreign lands for no reason at all, saddle them with billions in debt year after congressional year while they spend their winters cheerfully watching game shows and football, pull the rug out from under their mortgages, and leave them living off their credit cards and their Wal-Mart salaries while you move their jobs to China and Bangalore.

“And none of it matters, so long as you remember a few months before Election Day to offer them a two-bit caricature culled from some cutting-room-floor episode of Roseanne as part of your presidential ticket. And if she’s a good enough likeness of a loudmouthed Middle American archetype, as Sarah Palin is, John Q. Public will drop his giant sized bag of Doritos in gratitude, wipe the sizzlin’ picante dust from his lips and rush to the booth to vote for her. Not because it makes sense, or because it has a chance of improving his life or anyone else’s, but simply because it appeals to the low-humming narcissism that substitutes for his personality, because that image on TV reminds him of the mean brainless slob he sees in the mirror every morning.

“Sarah Palin is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the modern United States. As a representative of our political system, she’s a new low in reptilian villainy, the ultimate cynical masterwork of puppeteers like Karl Rove. But more than that, she is a horrifying symbol of how little we ask for in return for the total surrender of our political power. Not only is Sarah Palin a fraud, she’s the tawdriest, most half-assed fraud imaginable, 20 floors below the lowest common denominator, a character too dumb even for daytime TV – and this country is going to eat her up, cheering every step of the way. All because most Americans no longer have the energy to do anything but lie back and allow ourselves to be jacked off by the calculating thieves who run this grasping consumer paradise we call a nation.”

Doesn’t everybody want a cosmetic-savvy pitbull for their Vice President?

God(dess) help us all.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4788544836776919679&vt=lf&hl=en

So, who knew that integrity wasn’t a family value after all?

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/09/jon_stewart_is_brilliant.php

I received a forwarded email recently that quoted the District Judge who sentenced the notorious terrorist shoe bomber.  The original author of the email was clearly impressed by the judge’s determination that terrorists “hate our freedom”, angered that the news media had failed to highlight the judge’s glowing tribute to America, and hopeful that the email would make its way to “some teachers and college professors looking for something to reinvigorate their students with a sense of patriotism, pride and understanding of what this country is all about.”

I guess the good news is that the email inspired me to write, even if it was only because I was offended by the protracted political grandstanding and disturbed by the blatant sheep-mentality that has become so prevalent in our country.  I share my response below:

Terrorists are cowardly and sick for preying on innocent people.  Like other violent criminals who commit acts of murder, when properly convicted in a court of law, they should be punished harshly according to constitutional provisions set forth for equitable distribution of justice.

 BUT… the conclusion made by this judge and many Americans that terrorists commit their heinous acts out of a disdain for American freedom is grossly misplaced, woefully ethnocentric, and flatly wrong.  The US is hardly the only or the best example of democracy on the planet.  Democracy is currently the most popular form of government in the world, and numerous democracies have consistently outperformed the US in voter participation, levels of pluralism, and protection from government intrusion in civil liberties.  In fact, many people fail to recognize that our Constitutional rights, while in existence since 1791, have only been equally applied to all American citizens for less than 100 years.  We are quick to gloat that we are one of the largest and oldest democracies on the planet, yet our form of democracy was seriously flawed for most of its existence.  Women (half our population) have only had the right to vote in the United States for 88 years and segregation and discrimination based on race, religion, sex and national origin were legal and prevalent less than 50 years ago.  In fact, many countries recognized women’s suffrage before the United States.  Further, over one-third (usually more) of qualified citizens refuse to exercise their right to vote or challenge public policy in our democratic process compared to much higher participation rates in many European democracies.  There are also other democracies that grant far more power to the people, permitting citizens to directly place bills on the ballot, offering direct votes on referenda and allowing them to propose reconsideration of current laws. 

While we should appreciate and defend our Constitution and do everything in our power to strengthen and refine our democratic system, we must recognize that America’s freedom is not the perceived threat to foreign terrorists.  Most accurately, we need to be concerned about the message our foreign policy has been sending to the global community for the past 100 years or so.  Presently, America has not only the largest military budget in the world, but a larger military budget than all other countries combined.  We maintain over 700 military bases across the world and have perhaps the most extensive and consistent history of military engagements.  Terrorists do not hate our freedom.  They despise our self-serving imperialism and self-righteous indignation.  While their methods are desperate and deplorable, their message should cause every freethinking American to search for answers. 

Love for one’s country is noble, but blind patriotism is the death of democracy.  The strength of a free nation rests in the ability and demonstrated commitment of its people to govern themselves with critical thinking and honest evaluation.  Freedom is not a gift the American people received long ago to be worshipped or propagandized.  It is an enormous and essential responsibility that requires free people to encourage visibility, honor diversity, and promote human liberty. 

As a college instructor, civil rights attorney, and zealous patriot, I am always searching for lessons to remind my students of their vital role in our democratic system, but the message of this judge not only fails to identify correct motivations for terrorism, it fails to inspire the courageous critical reflection necessary for self-governance.  Essentially, democracy is power to the people.  But people are only empowered when they refuse to abdicate their thinking to the authority invested in their elected leaders or cover shameful truths with flags and fireworks.  Patriotism is a NOT prideful declaration, it is an act of service wrapped in gratitude, humility and the steadfast pursuit of truth. 

 

I apologize for my lengthy absence from the blogging world.  July was a rough month for me.  After an exhaustive and expensive battle with the emergency vet, I was forced to put my 11-year old dog to sleep on July 4th.  She was truly one of my closest friends and ending her life was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made.  I will find the time to post about her soon. 

Three weeks later, my uncle passed away quite unexpectedly from a heart attack at age 60.  His death was a crushing to blow to our family and to his community.  As an 8th generation Vermonter who served as a local and state elected representative and the director of the annual 100-mile race to raise money for the Vermont Adaptive Ski Program, his life has had a profound and lasting impact.  His memorial service was held this weekend at the PICO Mountain ski facility with over 500 in attendance.  Acting as Mistress of Ceremonies, I opened the occasion with the following remarks:

I am honored to have been asked by family to speak today on behalf of my beloved uncle.  Despite the limitations of language, I hope to convey to you even a fraction of the depth of such an amazing man by sharing a personal glimpse into one of our last encounters.

 

The last time I stood on this beautiful mountain, she was dressed in her winter whites.  Like most people, I had come here to ski, but as a native Floridian I arrived in this magical foreign world of frozen crystals and powered hills with an odd combination of wonder and trepidation.  Like an infant learning to walk, I would stumble about in my bulky, wet books, bewildered by the streams of people flowing to and from the busy lifts. 

 

But even in my awkwardness and anxious curiosity, there was an unwavering feeling of security that came from the company of my Vermont family.  I may have been a flatlander, but in the company of the Hutchinsons, the mountain was my second home. 

 

After my aunt Leslie ensured everyone was suited up and I shared some friendly teasing with my cousin Rich, we all headed to the bunny slope for a little impromptu instruction from Julia.  She patiently walked us through the basic techniques, joined me on a couple runs down the smallest hill, and then my uncle Hutch offered to escort me on the blue trails.  Although I was still secretly terrified, their encouragement and supportive confidence had me convinced. 

 

Despite a clumsy tumble on the lift dismount that left us sitting in a snow bank, Hutch cheerfully assured me of my ability and followed my painfully slow descent down the mountain with his gracious and attentive direction.  Even when my fear would paralyze me and my mood dissolved into stubborn negativity, he would stop beside me with an understanding grin and joke that it was a good spot for sightseeing.

 

And after I lost control on an icy patch and rolled wildly into a frantic face-plant, my uncle was instantly by my side to assess the damage and assist me to my feet.  Once he determined that I had managed to escape serious injury, Hutch smiled at my tearful cheeks and commented that my stopping technique was most impressive.  “You didn’t even drop a pole or lose a ski,” he laughed.  “If you’ve got to go down, you might as well give it everything you’ve got.”

 

This was just an afternoon on the mountain with my uncle, but the same tenacious spirit and genuine joy he shared with me in that moment was always present.  Hutch gave life everything he had.  He embraced each moment with a fullness and intensity that reflected the very essence of living.  He seized each day with a contagious enthusiasm that made everyone he met more alive in every way.

 

Henry Miller wrote that “the aim of life is to live.  And to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” 

 

Hutch lived in a constant state of awareness.  When he was with you, his presence was real and undeniable.  He did not lose time in past mistakes or future plans, but inhaled life with a grateful and humble appreciation for every breath, each conversation, each silent night under Vermont’s star-filled sky. 

 

Many times death is shrouded in regret or a sadness that comes from unspoken words or unfinished business.  When we lose someone we love, especially when it seems their death was before their time, we are tempted to grieve for what could have been.  But while each of us has suffered a tremendous loss, today we must celebrate the amazing gift that Hutch brought to us.  For Hutch was a man whose death is not an ending, but a beginning of our awareness of his unmistakable presence in our lives.  He was a man whose voice filled a room, whose spirit knew no bounds, and whose strength transcended generations.  He was the rock of his family, the center of his community and an inspiration to all who knew him.  There is no greater testament to his impact than to look around this room here today. 

 

Hutch lived his life with such integrity and purity of character that even those who disagreed with his politics were compelled to respect his presentation.  He was a man that anyone could admire.  Hard work lit a fire in his heart that was only rivaled by his ability to play with every ounce of his being.  He was the type of human being that reminded all of us what is truly important: each other.

 

So today we live for Hutch.  In his memory, seek joy in every moment, find a new appreciation for being alive, and like Hutch, go forward and lead fearlessly, love unconditionally, and live with everything you’ve got.

 

Many thanks to Mrs. Chili for inspiring me to post this simple piece I wrote a year and a half ago when my grandmother died.

 

In memory of my grandmother..

 

As a young girl, it was always such a special time to come to New England. There is something almost magical here, tucked away from the rest of the world, where pink and orange sunsets swirl above the still blue expanse of the bay.  It’s the kind of place you can go to talk to God, a place where a silent snowfall fills your heart with soft melodies, a place where you can make friends with a downy woodpecker and your grandmother at the same time. 

 

Each time I arrived at my grandparents’ home nestled between ancient farmhouses and rolling fields, I knew an adventure was about to present itself.  There were imaginary pirates to capture from a weathered rowboat in her pond, expeditions to search for beavers beyond the lazy cattails and, when the courage was mustered, a hunting safari with my younger brother to slay imagined beasts that ruled the 37 wooded acres along the back of my grandparents’ property.  But the most precious memories were with my grandmother, studying horseshoe crab babies in plastic tubs, introducing myself to the birds outside her picture window, and proudly accompanying her on the golf course to pretend I was more interested in her swing than the squirrels that made their homes in the trees along the green.  I looked forward to the times when she would invite me to the barn to feed her racing pigeons.  The cloud of weightless, white feathers and stench of mothballs would engulf us as we stepped into the haze of yellow sunbeams that filled the musty, wooden stalls.  The birds seemed to greet us with an excited chorus of pecking and cooing.  Sometimes my grandmother would take me along in the cab of the old pick-up truck to release the pigeons for practice flights.  I remember asking her, “Gram, how do they know where home is?”  She chuckled as she opened the latch on the next wired cage, “How do you know where home is?”

 

I never answered her question aloud, partly because I was still a little puzzled, but mostly because the answer seemed irrelevant in that silent moment there alone with my Gram on a dewy New England morning.  But since my grandmother passed away this December, I’ve revisited that conversation in my mind many times, searching for truth in the memory of her smile.  And while I’m uncertain what the answer is, as I sit here on the steps of her splintered porch, I cannot help but feel I’m home.  

 

The other day, after the December snow had freshly covered my grandmother’s well-manicured lawn, I walked alone in her old barn thinking of her and her feathered friends.  The stalls are empty now.  The only evidence of pigeons that remains is the never-ending rows of faded blue and white championship racing certificates that line the splintered walls.  I can almost hear the pigeons coo, though, in the silent, stale air.  And I can feel her there, all around me, still teaching me with her questions. 

 

The days I spent with my grandmother before her passing were a precious gift.  Even surrounded with all the busy nurses and plastic tubes, the peace and strength reflected in her eyes took me back to that foggy morning when her smile was the only answer I needed.  Even when speech failed her in the final hours, those fierce blue pools never wavered.  As I sat by her bedside, cradling her soft, small hand in mine, I watched her leave this life overflowing with love, fearless, and without regret. 

 

I knew then that she was going home. 

 

When it comes to priorities, health is one of the most important, if not THE most important, factors that impacts our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Notably, we cannot care for others or see to greater challenges, until we first tend to the basic health and sustenance of our own physical existence.  How can we expect each other to show concern for the natural environment, the ethical treatment of animals, or even the political tragedies and social injustices of our national and global communities when we do not even love and respect ourselves enough to live with the intention that our physical health requires? 

 

Because we are a high-income country and we spend the MOST money per capita on healthcare, one would expect us to have some the healthiest and happiest people on the planet. Yet, as a country our self-reported happiness has been in decline since the 1950s, 1 in 10 American women are taking anti-depressants, we are presently ranked 42nd in the world for life expectancy, 60% of US adults are overweight, 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women are diagnosed with cancer, 7% of our population has diabetes, and 1 in every 3 Americans dies from heart disease.  These are not reflections of a healthy people.  These results do not represent a group of citizens who are truly concerned about or committed to health in any form. 

 

Oh sure, we’re still slightly ahead of much of the developing world, as our wealth somewhat insulates us from diseases like malaria, typhoid, complications from starvation and malnutrition, provides readily available vaccines and medications to treat most common bacteria-induced infections, and offers accessible and affordable birth control to prevent an AIDS epidemic like the one that exists in Africa.  But the two leading causes of death in America, heart disease and cancer, are unique to developed countries (like ours) where a diet rich in animal products and a chemically synthesized environment go hand in hand with affluence.  But really, let’s just look at heart disease right now because that’s the NUMBER ONE KILLER in America.  While genetics is often recognized as a contributing factor, what are the medically KNOWN causes of heart disease?  Well, heart disease (or more specifically, heart attacks) are caused by blocked arteries that limit blood/oxygen flow to our four-chambered pumping vessel.  Arteries are blocked by cholesterol build-up that accumulates over many years.  The really interesting fact about cholesterol is that it ONLY exists in meat and animal products.  While some vegetables contain levels of saturated fats that our liver can convert to cholesterol, the likelihood of developing heart disease from a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet is exponetially lower than traditional carnivores.  In fact, anyone who has a genetic risk for heart disease or acquires that risk from a diet that includes large amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat, will be instructed by a physician to REDUCE their intake of meat and animal products.

 

Of course, there is such a thing as “healthy” cholesterol (aka HDLs) that are necessary for maintaining balance in the body, but people don’t NEED to consume cholesterol in their diet because the body makes enough on its own.  If people absolutely cannot live without meat in their diet, they should at least severely reduce the amount of beef and substitute with seafood or soy for their source of protein.  What most people do not realize is that meat should not be the central focus of our diet.  Yet, most Americans plan their meals around their meats and organize their grocery shopping to incorporate meat into every day, if not every meal.  Humans only need 50 grams of protein per day (two cups of soy), but the average American consumes 200% of the recommended portion. 

 

Becoming a vegetarian is one of the best life changes I have ever made. I understand that it is not an easy decision for most Americans.  It took me 31 years to finally become a vegetarian: 25 years of ignorance and 6 years of denial. 

Despite popular myths about blood type diets, I am an O positive vegetarian who has experienced nothing but improvement in my health and well-being since I eliminated meat from my plate.  I now have more energy, sharper intellect, and incredibly regular/healthy bowels due to my lack of meat intake. I used to get sick often as a meat-eater, and I have not experienced any illness since I became a vegetarian, despite working 12 to 15 hours a day under stressful conditions.  My boyfriend also became a vegetarian at the same time and has had the same experience.  Despite his family and life history of high cholesterol and heart disease (his father died of a heart attack at age 52), his medical check-up last month was the best in his life including a completely healthy line of blood tests.  He is the perfect example of how a balanced vegetarian diet can still maintain a strong, muscular build that so many people wrongly assume requires meat to sustain.  Of course, we are just two people and our experience is hardly enough reason for anyone to consider something as dramatic as a diet shift.  Therefore I have done substantial research to pass on to others.

In fact, all the research I have done reveals NO scientific evidence that any blood type requires meat.  I have also discovered that it is completely possible to receive all the nutrients and minerals we need with a well-balanced vegetarian diet, including adequate levels of protein, iron, Omega-3s and healthy cholesterol.  To the contrary, my research has uncovered vast information about the negative impact of a meat diet on our physical body, our animal friends and the planet.  I’ll include numerous links below to videos and websites.

Although my initial inspiration for becoming a vegetarian was the realization of our inhumane food production practices in this country, my reasons have grown 10-fold.   Eating meat for food is THE MOST inefficient and wasteful process that results in tremendous destruction of our natural resources, including the bi-product of 1.4 billion tons of animal waste (130 times the volume of human waste) that is released into our soil and ground water.  The methane gas produced by our meat industry is one of the largest contributors to global warming. 

Since health and well-being is undeniably impacted by our mentality, it is important to consider the positive impact of a conscious vegetarian diet.  Medical research has consistently confirmed the powerful connection between mind and physical health.   This is evidenced by the placebo effect.   But beyond the science of quantum physics, for many there is an understanding of  our spiritual ability to create our own reality (and specifically our own health) with our thoughts.   Like any conscious creation, our diet is shaped by our feelings about what we eat.  In fact our diet is one of the most direct and influential aspects of our health because it essentially is the fuel for everything that manifests in our physical body.  “You are what you eat” is no different from “you are what you think.”  Why would you choose to eat vitamin supplements and avoid certain processed foods, but then eat meat injected with anti-biotics and growth hormones that was produced in an environment of violence and greed?  When we eat consciously and choose to eliminate foods that result in inhumane treatment of animals and exploitation of our natural world, the result is immediate and enormous in our physicality.  This of course extends to eating organic and nutritious foods, as well. 

There is a wealth of information available to suit whatever interest you may have about this topic.  A quick and easy place to start is: www.meatrix.comThis is a great site to introduce the concepts of animal cruelty without being over-whelmed with gruesome truth.  The videos are 5-minute animated parodies of the Matrix films.  It is also an excellent site for children. 

The next step up is an excellent (one-hour) film called Diet for a New America that explores the negative impacts of an animal-product diet on our bodies and the environment.  http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=diet+for+a+new+america&hl=en&sitesearch=#

Depending on how much truth you can handle… you’ll want to watch another 90-minute film called Earthlings that explores the systemic exploitation of animals by humans in very real detail.  This film was ultimately what gave me the strength to change my diet. Prior to watching this video, my mind was still able to rationalize eating meat as a moral life choice.  After watching the film, my conscience was shaken into awareness and forced to eat with intention or sacrifice my spiritual/moral paradigm and return to a life of hypocrisy. It is disturbing and indescribably sad, but a really well-made and beautiful film that recognizes the spiritual connection between humans and animals and our responsibility to treat them as sacred members of the Earthling family.  http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=diet+for+a+new+america&hl=en&sitesearch=#q=earthlings&hl=en&sitesearch=

Another excellent documentary is the Future of Food.  Although this 90-minute film mainly focuses on genetically-modified food, it shares the message about the implications of an unconscious diet. http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=diet+for+a+new+america&hl=en&sitesearch=#q=future%20of%20food&hl=en&sitesearch=

King Corn is a relatively short documentary that makes a clear connection between food production practices in the US and our failing American health.  It explores the consequences of genetically-modified corn used as the main food source for livestock, including connections to the American obesity and diabetes epidemics and our surprisingly low life expectancy despite our wealth.  http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1781387370821800410&q=king+corn&ei=KFJJSIqHOpGIrQLOt_2LDA&hl=en

There is so much more information, including scientific research like the China Study, if you want to learn more.  I do not offer this with any judgment, as I am well-aware of the emotional and cultural baggage that surrounds diet.  I do not mean to make light of the decision at all, because I truly believe it is one of the most important issues we must address as individuals and as a people.  We cannot live without food, but if we do not begin to eat consciously our food can also be responsible for our early death, the termination of humanity’s spirit, and eventually the final expiration of our species. 

 

 

The following is a letter I sent to my Ethics students last night.  As an unconventional educator who consistently steps outside the bounds of traditional instruction, I am often reminded that leading others into uncharted waters must involve a back-up plan for those inclined to mutiny or abandoning ship.   

Hello folks,    
     Congratulations for making it through another class packed full of complicated, thought-provoking, emotionally-charged ethical questions.  By now you should all be reconsidering the warnings I extended in our first class that this is one of the most difficult courses you’ll ever take.  I’m sure many of you were skeptical when I explained that you would often be forced to consider questions that would evoke emotion and possibly challenge your entire educational and moral paradigm.  Well, here we are at the end of the fourth week and I’ve only cracked the surface of what is to come.    Buckle up; It’s a crazy ride.        I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester and exploring more with you.  On Tuesday, I’m hoping we can pull together some of the topics we’ve touched on so far and begin to weave a tapestry from these colorful threads.  Perhaps we can also begin a class discussion about the ethics of teaching and taking a course in Ethics.  For now, I’d just like to assure you that there is a method to my madness.  (:    

     I know many of you were disturbed by what was presented in our most recent film.  In all honesty, I would be surprised if you were not. In fact, it is my hope that all of the films we watch will stir you.  I apologize for any discomfort that it caused you, but I cannot apologize for my decision to show the film in class.  You see, there are two reasons why I use supplemental media in the classroom to teach Ethics.  First, we can never truly understand intellectually what we do not experience.  Deciding the morality of issues on paper will never compare to the reality of ethical questions as they present themselves in our lives.  Part of my responsibility as an instructor is to prepare you to apply the material to your life.  Unfortunately, ethical questions in life don’t arrive in black and white on neatly printed pages or contain themselves to emotionless theories.  To the contrary, ethical questions emerge in a spinning fit of frantic feelings and uncomfortable chaos.  If we are to learn how to apply ethical reasoning to ethical questions, we cannot practice our reasoning in a meaningless vacuum of philosophy.  An ethics class without emotion is like bootcamp without violence.  I force you to feel because those are the conditions of ethical questions. It is much less about applying logical thinking TO real life conditions and more about applying logical thinking IN real life conditions. The question is not whether you are capable of considering ethical questions in the absence of emotion, but whether you are capable of considering ethical questions despite your emotions.  If I am going to effectively teach the practice of ethical reasoning, I must teach you how to think logically in a hurricane of emotion.  Anyone can learn to think critically.  The real measure of a master is the ability to use logic and reason when your heart attempts to overthrow your brain.  (:

   The second reason I use media to teach Ethics is simply to expose information in a captivating and succinct format.  How can we possibly decide ethical dilemmas if we do not actually know what we are deciding?  Although many of you may adopt the idea that “ignorance is bliss,”  it is impossible to consider ethical questions using reasoning and logic without considering unpopular perspectives and ugly truths.  Each of us comes to the classroom with a very different level of familiarity with each of these topics and it is my job to make sure we all come to the table with an understanding that is sufficient to address the questions before us.  Answering ethical questions without accurate information is like going to war without a weapon. 

    Many times in life, we are confronted with things we’d rather not confront.  Education is no exception.  When I tell you in class that there are no easy answers, I really mean it.  We cannot explore all the most difficult ethical questions of humanity in 8 weeks without rattling a few cages and shedding a few tears.  Moral conscience is a double-edged sword.  Ethical reason  is both a gift and a curse.  For we have evolved to a level that allows us to consider the most complex questions about our place in the universe, but to truly consider those questions we are forced to illuminate our darkest secrets and face our greatest fears. 

    I’m including the link to the film below for those of you who missed it and those of you who are brave enough to accept the challenge to practice your ethical reasoning skills in some of the most advanced conditions. 

I leave you with these words…

“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as fear.” Edmund Burke

“If words are to enter men’s minds and bear fruit, they must be the right words shaped cunningly to pass men’s defenses and explode silently and effectually within their minds.”    J.B. Phillips

 “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle

       “It is not my job to teach you what to think.  It is my commitment to teach you HOW to think so that you may think for yourselves.”  Your Instructor (:

 

       

This is the theme of my final lecture in the course I teach on Sociology.  I take this quote and inspiration from the pop-culture film Fight Club where the main character loses all of his belongings in a fire and uses the experience to liberate his soul, rather than pine for what he has lost.  Although, his liberation ultimately develops into a psychotic split personality disorder, the lesson is still helpful.  (: My students seem to appreciate the reference and the profanity, nonetheless.

Essentially, the substance of my lecture pulls together everything we have discussed throughout the term about human beings and how their interaction with each other and the planet transforms across time and culture.  I use this class to summarize all that my students have learned about the evolution of post-industrial society and the consumption-centered, free market economy that drives globalization, cultural imperialism and massive exploitation of human beings, living creatures, and natural resources.  We explore the epidemic of affluenza that plagues America with an obsession to define our personal value through materialism, image, and a disposable, instant-gratification lifestyle.  We look directly at what consequences flow from our way of life in this country, including our decreasing national happiness, rising stress levels, relatively low life expectancy (we’re presently 42nd in the world), genetically-modified foods, factory farming, toxic environments, income disparity, war, crime, pollution and global climate change. 

Many students become disturbed by their realization that they are affluence-addicted, and they begin to grasp concepts like global domination and inter-generational tyranny. They are struck with guilt and rage when they truly consider the implications of an America that makes up less than 5% of the world population but consumes over 25% of the worlds resources and produces two-thirds of the worlds toxic waste.  “How can this be?” they exclaim when we watch video clips about half the world living on the equivalent of $2 a day while Americans feel entitled to wear designer clothing and handbags, decorate their homes with lavish non-functional items, entertain themselves with a vast array of technological toys and drive vehicles that have more features related to comfort or status than actual transportation.  “How is that fair?” they demand when they learn that 40,000 people starve to death every day, while 60% of Americans are overweight. 

They really start to get uncomfortable when they discover that the world uses 100 million plastic shopping bags every MINUTE.  The US alone consumes 400,000 plastic bottles every MINUTE.  “That’s horrible!” they respond when they learn that one baby born in the US will have 12 times the destructive impact on the Earth as one baby born in India and 250 times the impact as one baby born in sub-Saharan Africa.  “Something must be done.”

And then I ask four questions about the future of humanity:

Where are we going?  Do you want to be here when we get there?  Is it possible to alter the course? What would it take to convince Americans to significantly change their high-consumption lifestyle?

Not surprisingly, all of my students come to the conclusion that our lifestyle in the US is unhealthy, out of balance with the global community, and catapulting humanity toward extinction.  They pair these observations with a passionate desire to create immediate change in the status quo, including many angry condemnations of past generations for gifting us with this monumental obligation to compensate for their poor planning. 

But when we arrive at the final question, I am always greeted with a slap of callous indifference and self-righteous powerlessness.   What was once a unified front of focused intention and impassioned morality dissolves in an instant to a room filled with spoiled, finger-pointing children.  “What the hell can I do about it?” they invariably retort.  “I’m just trying to support myself and my family” says the girl with Gucci purse whose last cigarette still lingers in her $75 hair-do.  “I can’t think about where and how stuff is made. If Wal-Mart sells stuff the cheapest, that’s where I have to to go on a limted budget.”  adds the twenty-something man in the back who HAD to build a garage onto his 2,400 square foot house to protect his new sports car.  “Right,” blurts a young mother who just bought all her children’s Christmas gifts at Wal-Mart, “some of us don’t have the income to choose where we buy things.  Like us, my husband just lost his job when they closed the factory where he worked and we can’t afford Made-in-the-USA products.”  Nevermind that the factory she mentioned had moved to Bangladesh to use child labor to produce all the cheap items she purchased.  

Someone usually interjects, “It’s not MY fault that corporations exploit desperate people and destroy the environment.”  as they finish off their Mountain Dew without a drop on their $40 Nike T-shirt.  Then, another predictably demands “the government should do something about this!” even though half of the people sitting in the room have never voted and 95% have never even considered writing a letter to the editor, protesting, or volunteering with a campaign.

So, this is where I explain the connections and how conscious consumption can address all of these issues.  I take great effort to inspire my students to take back their power and use their dollars and their democracy to create a better world for themselves, their communities, their economy, and restore balance to the Earth and all of its inhabitants.  I give concrete examples of how I have NOT purchased retail clothing, home decor, furniture, or small appliances in nearly 3 years, relying solely on thrift stores, garage sales, and the dump.  I point out my attractive, trendy attire that I purchased for less than $5 including my shoes, my bra, and my accessories.  I show them the canvas shopping bags I bought at the thrift store for a dollar or less each.  I describe the barn full of recycled building materials I have been collecting to build my home, and I show them a photo of the fully-functioning 52 inch, flat screen high-definition TV that we picked up at the dump for free, and replaced the color-wheel for less than $100.  I share stories of holiday gifts my family exchanged that included a cow my brother and his wife bought in my name for a starving family and an interest-free loan my parents extended to a poor South American farmer on my behalf.  I explain that if Americans weren’t so lazy, greedy and vain there is such a surplus of goods in this country that can all meet our needs without contributing to a soul-sucking consumer industry. 

Then someone always responds “I cannot buy used items for my family because who knows where it has been.  I don’t want to expose my children to things that are unhealthy.” This becomes the consensus in the room, despite the fact that 95% of them eat factory-farm meat and animal products injected with growth hormones and antibiotics AND highly processed, genetically modified food, infused with high-fructose corn syrup and grown with layers of toxic pesticides and fertilizers.  I find it ironic that most people will not put their children in used clothing (even if they wash it), but they saturate their diets and their homes with toxic chemicals. 

So, I counter with the idea that maybe if they cannot buy used items, perhaps they could just buy LESS items.  Would it be possible to own only 5 pairs of shoes instead of 20 or keep their living room furniture until it is no longer functional even if that means not having a matching set or the newest styles?  Almost instantly their faces form scowls of disgust as they imagine a world where the items they buy have actual purpose beyond displaying their wealth, expressing their personal taste, or providing hollow satisfaction for a bored life.  They cannot fathom an existence independent of the things that make-up their identity and represent their success.   Imagine that!  A chair is for sitting and a dish is for eating, regardless of what it LOOKS like. 

Many people are actually offended that I would question the ethics of their purchases because they worked hard to earn their money and America is a free country.  It is as if we have created a culture where free choice means free game.  Well, to quote another great movie, “Freedom isn’t free. It costs a hefty fucking fee.”  The cost of the American lifestyle can no longer be captured in a price tag or buried in a landfill, folks.  We are bursting our britches, our budgets and our borders, and along the way we are plundering people and the planet. 

When will we stop defining ourselves by the contents of our home and our wallet, and begin to value people over possessions?  When will we put our money where our mouth is and LIVE according to our conscience?  Or is our conscience one more casualty of our consumption? 

“You are not your fucking khakis.”

Asking the question “Who Am I and why am I here?” does not necessarily imply some universal agenda from an “overarching being.”  The answer to such questions can (and in my opinion… DOES) emerge from a very personal perspective. 

Ascribing meaning to our existence must not merge with some religious dogma or universal agenda, but it very much provides structure and purpose for our lives.  I do not believe the search for my purpose is an effort to align myself with some mythical diety who assigns my fate and renders me powerless.  Rather, my search for purpose is an act of self-definition that is best left to the less programmed portion of my brain.  While incorporating the left brain into these explorations can he helpful, ultimately we become limited to the serial processing of a higly predictable formula.  Our right brain frees us to think outside the box and CREATE whatever purpose we desire. 

Although our left brain would like us to live in a black and white world, science is no less married to spirituality than spirituality is unaffected by science.  In the words of Albert Einstein, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”

Incorporating a larger spiritual purpose into our experience in the NOW is essential to what makes us human.  We have evolved to the point where mere survivial and self-awareness no longer provides enough stimulation for continued evolution.  If we do not begin to seek answers to questions about our purpose, we are doomed to our present cycle of self-destruction. 

I do not ask these questions because I do not know the answers.  I ask these questions because the asking is part of the answer. 

Who are we and why are we here?

We are who we choose to be and we are here for whatever purpose we create.  Creation can be conscious and intentional or random and accidental.  Either way, we are always evolving and creating our reality.  I ask the questions not because I seek some guidance from an external authority, but because I recognize my internal power to manifest  a creation that reflects Who I Really Am. 

In the words of a great man, “Random success is overrated.”  My father always taught me that having a plan significantly increases the likelihood that we can create the world as we choose.  But a plan without a purpose is like a road map without destination.  We must determine WHERE we are going before we can set out HOW to get there.  And as I tell my students, we must know where we are to know where we want to go.